Even teenagers who aren’t overweight can show signs of cardiovascular damage if they carry excess body fat.

As early as age 13 teens showed evidence of reduced blood vessel elasticity — an early warning sign of heart and vascular disease in adults. Higher amounts of body fat were associated with lower elasticity.

The teens who weighed the most appeared to have the greatest risk. But even those who were not considered obese or even overweight showed evidence of reduced blood vessel function.

Pediatric cardiologist Stephen Daniels, MD, says the study offers some of the best evidence yet that carrying excess body fat early in life can lead to the blood vessel damage that is a major cause of heart attack and stroke.

Daniels is a professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

“These findings are less of a surprise than a confirmation that this process begins early,” he tells WebMD.

Kids Could Stay Heavy for Years

Vessels Less Stretchy

Twice as many children in the U.S. are considered overweight today as two decades ago. Recent national statistics found that roughly one in four children examined by pediatricians today is either obese or at high risk of becoming obese.

Being overweight is one of the strongest risk factors for heart disease in adults, but the risks associated with being overweight during childhood and adolescence are not well understood.

The newly reported study involved 471 teens between the ages of 13 and 15 who were evaluated for well-known heart disease risk factors including blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin resistance, and body fat (as measured by skin-fold thickness).

Researchers from London’s St. George’s Hospital Medical School used ultrasound to measure the elasticity or stretchiness of blood vessels. Known by the medical term distensibility, reduced blood vessel stretchiness has been shown to be a key early marker of heart and vascular disease in adults.

The study appears in the Sept. 20 issue of Circulation.

A strong association was seen between increased body fat and reduced vessel elasticity in the young teens. The association appeared to be stronger than those seen for other heart disease risk factors, including cholesterol level, says a researcher on the study.

“These findings suggest that this [blood vessel damage] is more strongly related to body weight than any other risk factor,” Peter H. Whincup, FRCP, tells WebMD.

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Prevention Is Key

The study was not designed to address the role of weight loss in reducing the vessel damage associated with being overweight or obese early in life.

But Daniels says its findings do provide a strong incentive for increasing public health efforts to address the growing problem of childhood obesity.

“The focus should be on keeping kids healthy by preventing them from becoming overweight or obese in the first place,” he says.

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Whincup, P.H. Circulation, Sept. 20, 2005; vol. 112: online edition. Peter H. Whincup, FRCP, professor of epidemiology, department of community health sciences, St. George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Stephen Daniels, MD, professor of pediatrics and environmental health, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, University of Cincinnati; spokesman, American Heart Association.